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Life Changes at the Edge of the World
Racheal Walker

'For some reason I thought that jetting off to far-flung shores would be the magical key to lifting my lifetime ban from Asda'.

My epiphanic travelling moment; my irradiant, lightbeam-from-above tinctured serendipity; my awakening to a chorus of angels’ voices and Hallelujahs a-go-go, came as I squatted over the parched, crusty red earth of a pot-hole ridden Cambodian thoroughfare (I am still loath to use the word "road" to refer to the 8-hour stretch of bladder-bursting, trajectile hell transporting me bumpily bus-bound to Thailand), peeing defiantly before a hotchpotch melee of fellow travelers, bus drivers, construction workers and farmers, lest a modesty-preserving nip behind the bushes result in an untold explosion of landmine-wraught anatomical carnage.

I had hoped it would be a nobler affair. Perched atop a hillside, waiting for the break of day to illuminate dark shadows and transform them into the majestic, lotus bud wonder of Angkor Wat, would have been nice. Humbled by the uglier manifestations of humanity at the Killing Fields would have provided some suitably sombre anecdotal fodder for the folks back home. But no, it was through unabashed urination that I found MY answer to that eternal traveller’s existential conundrum: "What the hell am I doing here?!"

I had embarked upon my South-East Asian adventure, wanting not to escape the humdrum reality of a mundane, drizzle-backdropped 9-5 desk-job in Leeds. I wasn’t even seeking an escape from myself, as is so often subconsciously, unadmittedly the case. Rather I half dared to hope that through a spot of escapism from a disappointingly real life, and the fresh thrill of unknown challenge I would somehow conquer myself…

I had suffered from panic attacks for 5 years. Many a shop assistant had I incensed with my hebdomadal abandonment of goodness-knows-how-many thick-sliced white loaves in the frozen pizza aisle, as I fled terror-stricken from the supermarket as if the dawn of Armageddon had just been announced over the tannoy: "Two-for-one on Horsemen on the Apocalypse!" Many a time had I read the advice of countless glossy women’s magazines’ "half-arsed guides to fitness for the lazy and apathetic" that getting off the bus a stop early was a short cut to an enviably svelte silhouette the likes of which would have supermodels the world over enviously dressing their lettuce leaves with appetite-suppressant. However, alighting twelve stops early, heart thumping, chest about to explode, torrents of sweat literally spewing forth from one’s temples, might just be taking the whole armchair fitness thing a bit too far. Indeed it may be construed by some as evidence of a severe case of body dysmorphia…

For some reason I thought that jetting off to far-flung shores would be the magical key to lifting my lifetime ban from Asda. Maybe I’d gorged on too much self-help rhetoric about "expanding comfort zones". Maybe I’d absorbed too many travelogue clichés about "finding myself" in the stress-free indulgence void of the developing world. Maybe I was just clinically insane, as well as afflicted by panic disorder. Whatever… My confident resolve slowly began vanishing into so much thin air 24 hours later, as I clutched my receipt for an 895 GBP, non-refundable flight to Ho Chi Minh City in my increasingly clammy right hand. Like emerging from an amnesiac heavy drinking session to the spasmodic realization of eternal humiliation and irreversible social ostracisation, vague recollections of striding defiantly into STA travel and gesticulating earnestly in the general direction of some glossy, panoramic aerial shots of Angkor Wat, walloped me in the face in waves, and I cringed with excruciating embarrassment at my delusions of grandeur…

Surely comfort zones don’t expand all the way to Vietnam? To Devon perhaps, which I’ve heard is very nice during the late aestival chill, so typical of the, a-hem, sublime British climate. But South-East Asia??? Surely not. I mean, as if the prospect of intimate bilateral relations with a squat toilet following some overenthusiastic gorging on Cambodian curry à la salmonella, hilarious tales of which my supposedly supportive, better-travelled friends suddenly became sadistically wont to regale me, coupled with the unrelenting terror of awakening to a low, portentous buzzing within the mosquito net, despite popping anti-malarials with the side effect of hallucinogenic flashbacks to an ill-advised field in Hampshire in 1993 wasn’t enough, there was also the small matter of a 12-hour non-stop flight to Bangkok, within the context of my last, hellish 2-hour jaunt to Barcelona, the entirety of which was spent braced in the toilet, hyperventilating into an air sickness bag!

Yet three months later, there I was, sharing my toilet habits with an international rabble of complete strangers in order to avoid potential death by landmine, having spent a jolting six hours bouncily re-defining the term "motion sickness", gingerly making my way across a rickety, wooden, mid-construction bridge that was having its own delusions of grandeur if it thought it was ever going to support the weight of a pre-Pol Pot, air-con bereft bus, crammed full of Bangkok-bound tourists and their assorted backpacks, as the aforementioned Satanic vehicle took a detour through a field (note: the same field in whose bushes I was too cautious to seek urinary sanctuary). In this moment of ultimate bathos the farcicality of my pre-departure anxiety was revealed to me, gloriously butt, stark, glaring naked…

How could I possibly worry about making a public arse of myself, sticking my head out a bus window and gasping for air like it was going the way of Middle East oil reserves, in the shadows of Phnom Penh’s infamously sobering tourist attractions? Although admittedly not the hothouse tourbillon of honking horns, gasoline fumes and trial by olfactory gland courtesy of the acrid potpourri of smoke wafting from a scrimmage of street vendors’ grills, that tends to characterize South-East Asian cities, Cambodia’s atrophied, history-confined capital presents a nervous challenge even to those who don’t find themselves making military-precision mental checks of potential escape routes in any remotely enclosed edifice.

Yet somehow the irrational fears that back home - fortuitously couched as it is in comfort and untouched by genocide or devastatingly errant ideology – would have rendered me a trembling, incapacitated wreck, seemed simply absurd after spending an afternoon gazing into innumerable pairs of hauntingly vacant eyes, photographs of whose owners - victims of a deadly idiosyncratic socialism – adorn the stark, still blood-stained walls of former Khmer Rouge torture centre, S-21...

In light of the truism that it is so often not the breathtaking sights, exotic tastes, bewildering smells or unfamiliar, unfathomable sounds that indefinably "make" a journey, rather it is the individuals that we encounter, who stay with us and who shape our adventures in our memories, it seemed self-indulgent and morose to cling to the comparatively insignificant, entirely self-imposed limitations placed upon an essentially blessed existence having come across barefoot, streetwise children, begging for a few riel, yet laughing defiant in the face of an incomprehensible poverty, that perversely appeared to bestow upon them a contagious, careless serenity. This is not to belittle the daily misery endured by many sufferers of panic, seemingly straightjacketed from living out even their most banal dreams and fantasies - nor to glorify poverty in quasi-Rousseauan terms. It is simply a personal affirmation of how a mid-flow moment of clarity, just two bone-shaking hours from the Thai border and roads – blissful, wondrous roads of smooth, unerring tarmac! – with a valium supply nowhere near as close to depletion as feared, offered a much-needed revision of perspective…

So did I conquer myself in Cambodia? Well, not quite. The panic attacks persisted well into Thailand, Vietnam and even the long haul back to Heathrow. Nevertheless, Cambodia didn’t conquer me, as I was panic-stricken it might...
© Racheal Walker March 2004

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